Calcutta High Court: ‘Sweety’ and ‘Baby’ Context Matters, Not Always Sexual Remarks

The Calcutta High Court recently emphasized that terms like ‘Sweety’ and ‘Baby’ used to address women aren’t always sexually charged, highlighting their common usage in certain social contexts. Additionally, the court cautioned against the misuse of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (POSH) Act, noting its potential to exacerbate barriers for women in the workplace.

These remarks were made by Justice Sabyasachi Bhattacharyya in a case concerning allegations of sexual harassment.

Here’s what happened:

  • Allegations of Sexual Harassment: A female employee of the Coast Guard accused her senior officer of sexual harassment, citing various incidents, including the use of terms like ‘Sweety’ and ‘Baby’ to address her.
  • Complainant’s Assertion: The complainant contended that these terms were used with sexual undertones, causing her discomfort.
  • Officer’s Defense: The accused officer denied using the terms in a sexually coloured manner and ceased using them once the complainant expressed discomfort.
  • Court’s Observation on ICC’s Finding: The High Court noted the ICC’s view that the terms were inappropriate but added that they may not always have sexual connotations.
  • Definition of Sexual Harassment: The Court cited the POSH Act’s definition of sexual harassment but noted that the use of terms like ‘Sweety’ and ‘Baby’ may not always qualify as such.
  • Removal of Unwelcome Conduct: The Court observed that the accused stopped using the words after being confronted by the complainant, removing the element of unwelcome conduct.
  • Lack of Witness Corroboration: The Court highlighted the absence of witnesses or CCTV footage to support the complainant’s allegations of inappropriate staring and peeping.
  • Usual Terminology in Coast Guard: The Court dismissed the allegation of sexual innuendo in the phrase ‘hugging the coast,’ considering it as standard terminology in Coast Guard circles.
  • Reservations about Genuineness: Expressing reservations, the Court questioned the timing of the complaint and suggested the possibility of misuse to counter prior charges against the complainant.
  • Dismissal of Writ Petition: The Court dismissed the complainant’s writ petition and upheld the ICC’s decision to absolve the accused officer of wrongdoing.
  • Caution Against Misuse of POSH Act: The Court warned against the misuse of the POSH Act, emphasizing the need to avoid creating obstacles for genuinely competent female employees.
  • Clarification on Pending Criminal Case: The Court clarified that its decision pertained to the writ petition and did not comment on the merits of the criminal case against the accused senior officer.

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About the Author: Payal Singh